Amazing what one good speech can stir up. Amazing good, amazing bad, time will tell. But a speech to the City Council last week by District 6 candidate Omar Narvaez certainly stirred the pot. Days after Narvaez heaped shame and brimstone on the mayor and council for possible massive evictions of poor families in West Dallas, Mayor Mike Rawlings called major landlords to his office to offer a startling new deal.
Khraish Khraish, owner of HMK Properties, and fellow developer John Carney left the meeting believing, perhaps incorrectly, that Rawlings had told them he had a secret benefactor, whom they say he described as a “philanthropist,” willing to buy all of their threatened houses, repair them and sell them to the current tenants. (That could affect around 200 families, though the number tends to float around from story to story.)
If true, it would be a precedent-smashing innovation and a last-minute miracle. If false, then it’s a deeply cynical exploitation of poor people who are unschooled in the dark arts of City Hall politics and deserve better.
Either way, the mayor’s proposal was a sudden explosion of action barely half a week after Narvaez had him and the council squirming behind the dais in the City Council chamber. Up until now, Rawlings’ posture toward low-rent landlords has been heavily punitive, helping to create the situation in West Dallas.
The Rawlings meeting Monday came after Narvaez’s opponent, incumbent Monica Alonzo, basically had ignored the looming eviction crisis in her own district for a half year and then, forced by public outcry to take notice, failed to get anything done. Alonzo is a close ally and acolyte of the mayor.
The fact that Narvaez was able to kick over the hornet’s nest with one tough speech is an object lesson, too, with the May 6 council elections looming on the horizon. A well-heeled group of check-writers associated with the mayor has launched a campaign of attack ads against East Dallas council member Philip Kingston, arguing that Kingston is not nice.
Alonzo is always nice. Over six months’ time, she accomplished not one thing to help the poor families facing eviction in West Dallas. That’s what nice gets you at City Hall.
Narvaez, on the other hand, stood up during the “open mic” or public comment portion of last week’s council meeting and pasted their ears back. Taking the council to task for passing tougher occupancy standards without making any provision for families displaced by the standards, Narvaez told the mayor and council: “Your sleazy attitude toward the residents of West Dallas did not consider the natural consequences of your actions.”
That was Wednesday. By Monday the mayor had Khraish and Carney in his office talking about a philanthropist who could turn the threatened families into comfortable homeowners.
There are two deadlines against which the mayor’s actions must be measured. The first is the May council election. The evictions are a major campaign issue in Narvaez’s efforts to unseat Alonzo.
Khraish and Carney have argued from the beginning that the mayor’s real agenda is getting control of their land, which is in an area of the city experiencing rapid gentrification and rising land values. Alonzo was in the mayor’s Monday meeting with the landlords in which he spoke to them about a philanthropist.
Khraish left the meeting deeply skeptical of the mayor’s proposal. In the first place, the city is suing him, arguing that his properties are uninhabitable because they violate the new “Chapter 27” housing code. Khraish believes the houses in question are too old and obsolete to be brought up to the new code, an opinion shared by Bill Hall, the head of Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity.
Khraish also is dubious that some unnamed party is interested in buying his land but remains unnamed. Especially given the mayor’s repeated insistence that Khraish himself cannot be involved in financing the sale of his own properties to his own tenants, Khraish smells a rat.
He and his father, who is his partner, are trying to get out of the rental business in Dallas. They have been aggressively selling some houses — better quality houses than the 200 where evictions are threatened — to tenants, financing the deals themselves. Khraish wonders why the mayor is so insistent he have no role in financing the sale of the 200.
“What difference would it make? I have made almost 60 renters homeowners in South Oak Cliff with unbeatable terms of zero down, 10-year notes and fixed interest rates that are all under 5 percent. So even my lending is a fantastic deal. Is the mayor going to offer better terms than mine? I doubt it. There’s no way.”
Yesterday I asked Scott Goldstein, the mayor’s spokesman, about the financing issue. He wrote back, “Ultimately, it is the residents’ choice. The mayor will do anything he can to help.”
If a real person is willing to make a real offer for the threatened properties, Khraish wonders why that person isn’t coming forth to talk to him about it and offering a deal, rather than the mayor acting as real estate agent.
“Or is it simply more reasonable to think that the mysterious philanthropist is the buyer that the mayor has always intended for me to sell to?” Khraish asks.
And that brings us to the second deadline — June 3, when a temporary court injunction expires and Khraish says he must do what he never intended or wanted to do — evict the families. If the injunction is allowed to expire, Carney and Khraish will immediately become subject to potential penalties of $200,000 a day in fines and jail time for continuing to rent houses in violation of the new code. Rather than take on that exposure, they will evict the tenants and demolish all the houses.
Given that the eviction deadline is less than 10 weeks away — and given the intricacies of negotiating and carrying out the sale of as many as 200 properties in that time — Khraish thinks Rawlings needs to bring his philanthropist forward quickly and get down to business.
But that is exactly the point where the mayor’s proposition goes a bit sideways. I wrote to Goldstein yesterday and asked, “Will the mayor provide the name of the philanthropist willing to fund purchases of Khraish houses before the May council elections?”
Goldstein wrote back, in part, “It sounds like you were provided with some misinformation. The mayor did not say there was a specific philanthropist willing to fund the purchase of Khraish houses. He simply brought that up as a hypothetical scenario.”
A hypothetical scenario? Why have a hypothetical scenario about real estate? Why not a real scenario? Either someone is willing to finance such a deal, or no one is.
Khraish leans strongly toward the latter possibility, for a number of reasons. Again, he doesn’t think the houses can be brought up to code. But in addition, many of the tenants in those houses have stopped paying rent, so they are now in arrears. And many are not citizens.
Khraish says he might be willing to work something out with even those tenants because of his longstanding relationship with them. But he has trouble believing any other lender, even a philanthropist, would or could extend mortgages to people with poor rent-paying histories, many of whom may have nonfunctioning Social Security numbers.
If nothing gets done by June 3, then at some point those people are out on the street with their kids, their clothes, their TV sets and their pets — events sure to provide an endless loop of drama on local television news. Who will be blamed? Will it be Khraish and Carney, the ones actually carrying out the evictions? Will it be Rawlings, whose aggressive posture against low-rent landlords helped put Khraish and Carney in this position? Or will it be Alonzo, for ignoring the plight of her own constituents?
Yesterday, 24 hours after Rawlings’ meeting with Khraish, The Dallas Morning News carried a headline on its metro front page, “City Asks HMK to Sell Homes to Tenants.” The story made no mention of philanthropists, nor did it provide any detail of how and when such sales would be effected.
Instead, the story said: “Dallas officials on Monday asked a landlord who is shuttering hundreds of low-rent rental homes, mostly in West Dallas, to consider selling some of his homes to tenants.”
The balance of the story portrayed Khraish as greedy and reluctant to allow his own tenants to become homeowners. He is quoted as saying, “I cannot give my properties away.” The story cites county tax appraisals as reflections of value, even though appraisals usually are a fraction of true market value.
Khraish thinks that was what the whole meeting was about — painting him as a greedy fiend tossing all these families into the street for no good reason, even when a secret hypothetical philanthropist wants to save them.
“The mayor was looking for a sound bite, so he and Monica Alonzo could take it their constituents and say, ‘We’ve got Mr. Khraish to agree to sell his houses to the tenants.’”
Khraish told me of course there is a price at which he would be willing to sell any of his properties. Carney pointed out to me that Khraish is already under contract to sell hundreds of houses to Habitat for Humanity.
But the absence of a named buyer for the 200 little houses and the absence of any real negotiations for price or terms are strong indications, Khraish and Carney believe, that the mayor’s offer was an insincere ploy, probably goaded from them in part by Narvaez’s electrifying speech to the council the week before.
Therefore Khraish would not give the mayor or Alonzo the blanket agreement to sell that they sought from him: “I wouldn’t give it to them. I told them from the very beginning that’s not possible.
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“I am not going to sell these houses to these tenants, because they have been deemed noncompliant with Chapter 27, nor can they be made compliant, according to Bill Hall, and therefore I am not going to be selling my tenants a bill of goods.”
The City Council elections are six weeks away. Hypothetical or not, the mayor and Alonzo have already given the poor families threatened with eviction hope that their troubles and fears may be at an end.
A rich person has emerged — the hypothetical philanthropist. The hypothetical philanthropist will buy their houses from Khraish, repair them to pristine quality, then sell the houses to the tenants, who pay between $400 and $500 a month in rent now, at mortgage rates they will be able to afford. Federal ICE agents will not show up at the closing with a van and haul them all off for deportation.
It’s a lot to hope for. Rawlings and Alonzo have one of two things in their covered basket, a miracle or a monstrous lie. Between now and the election, that truth must be known.